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Trustees: a Legion of Doom on every campus

Meanwhile, at the Board of Trustees...

Boards of Trustees (or Regents, Visitors, etc.) are as old as American colleges themselves. The University of Virginia's initial Board of Visitors included two Presidents —Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — and a host of local and national politicians. Compared with UVa's all-white all-male board in 1819, the past two centuries haven't done much to improve diversity. Across the country, more than 2/3 of all trustees are men, and more than 3/4 are white. However, the occupational makeup of boards has changed considerably. Elected officials make up less than a tenth of trustees these days, while 49% categorized under the heading of "business" — people like business owners, executives, middle management, bankers, and the like. Only 15.5% are considered to have a professional background of "education."

And as one would imagine, the relative stature and importance of the trustees varies by the stature and importance of the institution. At my alma mater, Moravian College, their trustees comprise mostly local and regional business executives and attorneys. But join NYU's Board of Trustees and you'll find yourself in a much more exclusive club. There you'll rub elbows with people like Bloomberg empire co-founder Charles Zegar, the Vice President of UnitedHealth Group, and execs from a dizzying array of real estate and financial investment firms.

While the member selection process varies, the structural function remains the same. Trustee boards are an opening for universities to sink their claws into the ranks of the elite; naturally it's also an opening for the elite sink their claws into universities. University presidents gain access to new high-dollar donors, increasingly complicated endowment investments, and firm allies in the quest for increased administration size and control. Board members gain the social prestige that all charitable efforts by the 1% engender and an outlet for one of the favorite pastimes of the business class: dispensing advice for which their only qualification is their wealth. Even more important, they also get privileged access to the financial decisions of multi-million (sometimes multi-billion) dollar organizations. An investigation by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that one out of every four private colleges directly do business with their trustees, which can take the form of noncompetitive contracts for construction, financial investment of endowment funds. The Chronicle's example of St. Olaf College is particularly revealing:

At St. Olaf College, the Boldt Company has completed or is working on $125-million worth of campus building projects. In 2007-8 alone, the company was paid nearly $40-million by the college.

The CEO of the company, Thomas J. Boldt, a St. Olaf alumnus, served on its Board of Trustees for 12 years before stepping down last year (board members can serve up to two six-year terms). Both Mr. Boldt and college officials say there was no competitive-bidding process for the projects his company managed, although Paula Carlson, a vice president at St. Olaf and liaison to the board, says there is "always a review of the cost" of a project, to make sure it is reasonable.

Asked if the college might have been charged a lower price if others had been allowed to bid on projects, Mr. Boldt calls that a "hard question to answer" because of the complexity of the design-and-construction process. He says his company works closely with clients to make sure buildings fit their needs. St. Olaf, he adds, has been happy with the work that Boldt has done.

But the effects of corporate board members go beyond sweetheart deals. Boards have been the primary conduit for introducing market structures and practices into higher education over the past several decades, primarily through drafting budgets and selecting university presidents.

When boards occasionally overreach, their crisis of legitimacy, always simmering just below the surface, threatens to boil over. The crisis of legitimacy can be found in the campus cohabitation of both the autocracy of the Board and the vestigial faculty guild-democracy of academic life. Faculty members in many cases still elect their department chairs and deans and participate in all-faculty governing bodies, but are subject to presidents picked by unelected outsiders. This is not a tension found in corporate boards of directors because they pin their legitimacy to the shareholders they represent: there is no need for even a pretense of caring about the opinions of workers. Outside the scope of this post but worth looking into as a case study is Dartmouth's board, which saw a protracted fight over the proportion of seats nominated by alumni.

At last count, 70% of public universities had student trustees, compared to only 20% of private universities. Faculty trustees are much less common, only seen at 13% of public and 15% of private universities. Part of the reason for the dearth in faculty participation is due to state labor laws — generally speaking, if public university faculty are represented by a union, they can't take part in management.

Either university boards are dispassionate caretakers of an institution they have no strong ties to (the governance equivalent of a blind trust, and in the case of public institutions, ensuring prudent management of taxpayer dollars), or boards represent those who are affected by the decisions they make. The halfhearted attempt at many institutions to reach a "happy medium" with token constituent representatives has only drawn them further into controversy and general hatred.

Why is that? Because the rationale for adding faculty or student trustees to a board obliterates the rationale for keeping the rest. If the board admits it needs expertise that can only be found in campus constituent groups, we suddenly move from a question of "should the board be representative?" to "how representative should the board be?" Why couldn't the board made entirely of, for example, faculty representatives with a few token seats for outsiders with specialized expertise? Or entirely of students? Once the leak in the dyke is sprung, the end result only depends on the pressure exerted upon it.

None of this is news for trade groups like the Association of Governing Boards Of Universities and Colleges (AGB), which opposes the introduction of either student or faculty trustees. Their primer on student trustees makes several arguments against schools adding students to their boards, at least one of which is an argument we would use as well:

Creating a student trustee position may lead faculty, staff, alumni, and others to argue for a seat in the boardroom, and having numerous places set aside for specific constituencies could dilute the influence of the board’s lay trustees.

AGB also posits what for them must be a terrifying, untenable situation: "since boards have the final say on student tuition, how can [student trustees] ethically vote on tuition issues if their student members are directly affected by board decisions?"

Not that, in truth, many boards should have reason to fear. When student trustees earn headlines, it's usually them acting against student interests. At Indiana University in 2012, a vocal student protest was held inside IU's Board of Trustees meeting due to a number of issues, first and foremost the simultaneous 5% tuition hike and 21% raise for IU's President the board unanimously approved the previous summer. After the students had ground the meeting to a halt more than once through the use of a people's mic (what one older trustee hilariously denounced as "the robotics"), the board chair deployed the only countermeasure he had, short of telling the police to haul them all out. He gave the floor to the Student Trustee, Cora Griffin, who told the protesters that the board had to get through its agenda for the day, "but there are certainly channels to speak with any of us," and reminded them that they "work very closely with student governments."

That same year at Ohio University, student trustee Allison Arnold voiced her support for a tuition hike and a raise for President McDavis. OU's two student trustees, who are non-voting members of the Board, both believed that "voting rights are unnecessary due to the good working relationship between the administration and themselves."

Arnold said that voting rights would be inappropriate because Student Trustees are consumers of the university and could confuse their student interests with those of the University. “If we’re customers can we really be the management?” she said. Roden also pointed out that if voting rights were in place, Student Trustees could be harmed by students who dislike their decision making.

“Unlike us, students can’t stand outside [the voting trustees] houses and picket them. They don’t get backlash from professors and students… there’s a safety issue,” she said.

Safety on campus is of course incredibly important. I have never come across, however, any instance of a student's safety put at risk based on votes she or he has made (if people have, please post in the comments), and there are plenty of controversial votes that can and do occur in plain ol' student government. If safety were to become a problem for voting student trustees, the solution is to create a safer environment on campus, not to stifle student participation.

Those few student trustees who want to use their positions to make change are often confronted with confusing and opaque procedures, paperwork, and organizational structure. A friend of mine was a student trustee at a New England public university and described the roadblocks he encountered as soon as he was identified as a "troublemaker." Some of the roadblocks were simply unavoidable: for example, the gigantic binders of documents, resolutions, and meeting minutes each board member receives, usually a matter of days before the meeting, are impossible to navigate without the professional assistants and support staff most trustees have access to through their regular jobs. In my friend's case, it also meant procedural shenanigans on the part of the board chair to keep his proposals from being considered and ensuring he was assigned to the most inconsequential subcommittees and task forces.

The track record of student trustees should be enough to disabuse even the most reformist student activist of the productive potential of these positions. That isn't to say, however, that there aren't tactical advantages to be exploited. The position of student trustee can to a certain extent be a platform for popular dissent within board meetings and in the outside world, leak important information helpful to activists, and deny one more spot for students interested in selling out their classmates in exchange for a plum internship or resume boost.

Trustees are the group of people at a university that are at once the most powerful people on campus and also those least affected by how they exercise that power. They're the votes that matter when hiring and firing the President, raising tuition, and increasingly determining curriculum and research priorities. Sometimes organizers can play them against another player or institution on campus, but we should never forget which side they're on. Sadly, unlike the Legion of Doom, trustees and regents are much more competent in carrying out their plans. The task of foiling them remains with us.

NYU College Republicans and Democrats Lecture TBNYU on How to Create Radical Change

HURR DURRIn a move reminiscent of The Wall Street Journal criticizing David Graeber's anarchist credentials, the electoral and reformist student groups at NYU did their best at hand-wringing and concern trolling, through a press release (of course sent out after they knew how everything would turn out).

NYU Students and Administration Members,

Though “Take Back NYU!” (TBNYU) has raised legitimate concerns regarding the conduct of the NYU administration, we, the undersigned believe that these concerns should be expressed in a more constructive manner within the avenues that NYU has established for student advocacy.

Many NYU students support budget disclosure, financial aid reform, greater sensitivity to student concerns, and increased openness and transparency. However, we believe that:

1) TBNYU’s tactics are confrontational and disrespectful in a manner that alienates sympathetic students and prevents the university from constructive and respectful engagement.

2) TBNYU’s demands are too disjointed. Broader student support can only be achieved if demands are coherent and focused.

3) TBNYU’s conduct is not appropriate to the gravity of the situation and does not encourage the thoughtful discourse necessary.

We urge that the NYU administration not dismiss the concerns of TBNYU and continue to pursue an amicable end to the situation. Should they be raised in a more constructive and appropriate manner, whether by TBNYU or any other student group at NYU, we hope the administration will not close the door to future discussion on the issues.

We, the undersigned:
NYU Students Organizing for America
Students of Color and Allies
Think Torch
NYU College Democrats
NYU College Republicans
Political Union & Review at New York University

"Golly gosh! Can't we win a better university without ruffling any feathers? What if we just kept asking nicely urging NYU to open its books and for the Administration to cede power to democratic structures?"

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, TBNYU activists and allies can easily determine the mental status of their fair weather friends.

NYU Occupation - The Aftermath

(2/23/09 - Thanks to beet for the updates!)

From what I'm being told:

  • all the NYU students who were caught were suspended by the University.
  • Non-NYU students were simply released released after having their names, addresses, and photos taken (possible NYU charges against them in the near future).
  • All of those who were nabbed that have campus housing have been evicted as of now.
  • We still don't know what happened to the one student - Alex Deschamps - who was arrested last night. People are looking into it. Alex Deschamps is out and he's okay.
  • The Kimmel Center is re-opened for student use (so the idiots can get their quesadillas now).

Final statement by Take Back NYU!:

At around 2pm today, members of Take Back NYU! left the Kimmel Center for University Life, ending a 40 hour+ occupation. Their action made national and international news, and showcased the real power of the new student movement sweeping the globe.

No doubt NYU will begin attempting disciplinary action, but no suspensions, expulsions or arrests can contain what began in the last two days. This fight will carry on in the hands of the dozens of people who made it inside, and the hundreds more who came out to support the occupation. NYU showed its irrational need to defend secrecy and its exclusive hold on power, and that alone will drive this movement forward.

For everyone showing support: the real lesson here is that you can act and you can make a difference. Take the lessons from the occupation on to your own struggle, and begin to act yourself. Onward.

NYU Occupation - occupiers allowed to stay the night

Word from is that NYU Administration is "allowing" the occupiers to stay the night. I say "allowing" because at this point NYU isn't in a position to allow or disallow anything - hundreds of students both in and outside the building are the ones in control right now.

NYU - Winning the Occupation, Losing the Messaging?

After an exciting and eventful night, the NYU occupation continues into the morning. Negotiations are expected to take place all morning and likely into the afternoon.

NYU has cut off internet and power to the students. There is a call out for a massive support rally at Noon; media vans are there and we should show them what solidarity looks like!

Speaking of media, it's high time that we supporters of Take Back NYU! make our presence known - we've practically lost the messaging war when it comes to online media. While yes, it's "only" blogs, and the comment threads of newspaper articles, that's where a lot of our age group gets its information and arrives at opinions from.

The first comment on a New York Times' article on the occupation?

NYU should call in the NYPD. throw in some tear gas, clear them out, then send them to rikers for a week or two to think about it. these spoiled kids are preventing hard working people from earning a living by occupying portions of the school. it is also a fire hazard and against the law. no sympathy can be shown.

You're going to get violent, right-wing psychos nomatter what you post online, but it's a tragedy (and really fucking demoralizing) if they're the only voices we see.

NYULocal is a good example - they've got some of the most comprehensive covering of what's going on at the occupation, but the writers and their commenters are just dripping with contempt and hostility for the occupiers. Variations on "love it or leave it" and the inaccurate and hyperbolic "these are only rich kids whose parents pay their tuition" abound (as an aside, I love how it's only in these scenarios that right wingers magically obtain some kind of class analysis).

Now one of their writers is questioning whether or not a student Senator (Caitlin Boehne) should be participating in the occupation -- are they kidding?? The real outrage is that only one of them is! And of course, irony of ironies, they wrap their objection and petition for her recall in democratic language, and that she's "misrepresentative of the CAS [College of Arts and Sciences] Student Body". Elected students should first and foremost be willing to stand up for their fellow students in the face of the Administration. Caitlin’s doing exactly that.

The left has always had problems getting a fair hearing in the press - but thankfully on the internet we can help level the playing field.

People are always asking what they can do to help, even though they're hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away.

  1. Write, email and call the NYU Administration (this will help).
  2. Get online and publicly show your support for the NYU students - and correct the misinformation that's being spread about the occupation.

NYU Admins Arrest Negotiators, Police Assault and Arrest Students

This will probably go down as the most incompetent and cretinous negotiation team a University administration has ever fielded. I just got this press release:

NYU Students Shut Down Building In Protest;
Administration shuts off internet, power, restroom access, refuses to negotiate and initiates police raid.

NYU Occupation - Four left

It looks like things have wound down - there are only four students left on the balcony - the rest have been arrested or forced to leave. This is probably your best bet for the latest: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=nyu

There's currently a support rally going on on the street below - from what I gather, the best we could be aiming for at this point is amnesty for the remaining holdouts. The NYU Administrators have issued the following press release:

NYU - The LATEST - 1:31AM

The tension inside the occupied NYU building has spilled out onto the streets in the form of literal street combat - cops have rolled in en masse at around 1:15AM (the deadline NYU Admin set for everyone to leave was 1AM). It's now 1:30AM, so far there's only been one arrest (of a student trying to climb a streetsign) - but apparently there's been copious amounts of teargas used. The street and intersection are so full of people, the cop cars can't get anywhere close.

NYU Administration refuses to negotiate, threatens expulsion

This is Jasper Conner's first post on For Student Power - thanks for writing, Jasper! - Patrick 

NYU Refuses to Negotiate with Student Occupation!

NYU’s administration refuses any face-to-face contact with student occupation, drawing out Take Back NYU!’s occupation, currently making national news.


The occupation, which began at 10pm on Feb. 18th with the seizure of the 3rd floor of the Kimmel Center has made news across the country and received declarations of support from universities across the world.

NYU’s Administration refuses to allow the students of the occupation a place at negotiations, instead relying on threats and intransigence to try to end Take Back NYU!’s campaign.

The NYU administration has threatened students with arrest late tonight, they need your support NOW! Click the link below and after you call and e-mail the administration, send the link to your friends!

You can also sign the online petition!

 Below is a recent press release from Take Back NYU! detailing the administration’s refusal to negotiate and their intention to maintain the Occupation.

35 More Students Join NYU Occupation Despite Police Violence - Midnight RALLY planned!

The Occupation of NYU for a more affordable, democratic, and socially responsible university has been going on for nearly 24 hours.

The administration of NYU still refuses to negotiate with the students of Take Back NYU! and has made multiple threats to students, including calling parents to threaten expulsion and promising arrests at 1 am in the morning.

I just got word from Drew SDSer Christa H. that about 35 students just rushed inside to join the Occupation. According to Christa, the police assaulted students Occupying the Kimmel Center and those making their way inside. She said that they hit many students and ripped shirts off of others. She ended the conversation by saying she had to go help others block the doors. According to Alex Lotorto, a member of Muhlenberg SDS, there are nearly 75 students inside the occupation at the moment!

Students have been making their way to NYU from across the city and from as far away as DC to support the amazing work that Take Back NYU! has done in the two years of their campaign leading up to this occupation. Support is still needed, anyone who can make it to NYU should head their immediately as support from the street is greatly needed.

Take Back NYU! is planning to hold a midnight Rally, which will take place right before the administration promised to give the order to arrest.

If you’re not close enough to travel you can still support the cause by letting everyone know about this bold action that NYU students are taking and by calling the NYU administration to demand that they NEGOTIATE with students rather than THREATEN AND BEAT them.

Support Take Back NYU!

Sign the Petition

cross-posted at Building Our Power

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